Researchers from the Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University have found that air pollution causes telomere shortening in newborn babies. The Journal Environment International published this respective research. The researchers of the study have found that prenatal exposure to air pollution leads to shorter telomeres in newborn babies. They mainly focused the air pollution generated by the burning of coal. The study further states that telomere shortening enhances the risk of chronic diseases later in life of the affected babies.
In May 2004, the government of China closed a local coal-burning power plant in Tongliang. The government took the action because of the increased number of reports regarding the high levels of air pollution in the area. The main objective of this plan was to improve community health.
The researchers observed the effects of the plant, on the lives of the inhabitants, before and after it was shut down.
Telomeres are DNA segments that ensure accurate duplication of the chromosomes during cell division. Telomeres shorten after each round of cell division and bring about the degradation of genomic stability. Studies link shortened telomere length to cancer, heart diseases, cognitive decline, aging, and premature death.
For the study, the researchers collected the umbilical cord blood samples of 255 newborns. The blood samples determined the length of telomeres in the babies. Half of the babies were born before the plant closed down. However, the other half were conceived and born after it shut down.
In order to validate the effect of air pollution, the researchers evaluated the telomere length against PAH-DNA adducts. PAH-DNA adduct is a biomarker for exposure. In addition, they also observed BDNF i.e. a protein involved in neuronal growth. The development quotient scores from Gesell tests were also accounted to ascertain whether there was a relationship between the length of telomeres and the current development of babies as noted in the analyses.
Researchers found greater levels of PHA-DNA adducts in the babies, born before the plant closed. This indicated the exposure of the newborns to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. These hydrocarbons are a toxic component of air pollution from factories.
The researchers associated these hydrocarbons to shortened telomeres, as well as reduced levels of BDNF.
Note that the telomere length was not directly linked to Gesell test scores. However, the researchers believed that this may still indicate related neuro-developmental problems later in life. In addition, the researchers also investigated the connection between the elevated levels of air pollution and their long-term effects on prenatal development.
Deliang Tang, from the Mailman School’s Department of Environmental Health Sciences, was the co-author of the study. He said that the telomere length at the birth of an individual influences the risk for disease decades later during adulthood.
Another co-author of the study named Frederica Perera belonged with the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health. She stated that this study serves as evidence to the fact that closing this coal-burning power plant was beneficial to the health of newborns of the respected area. She further added that lower exposure to air pollution can maintain and retain the quality of life in newborns.
Researchers encourage further research to evaluate the role of the length of telomeres in health outcomes in the context of early life exposure to polluted air.